In 1944, even before World War II had ended, Blue Earth County citizens were looking to honor the war’s servicemen and women. One particularity-driven individual was Harriet Barney. Born in Mapleton and living in Mankato, Mrs. Barney was the founder and president of the Mankato Garden Club. When a new highway between Mankato and Mapleton was announced, the idea of creating a living memorial to Blue Earth County’s World War I and II veterans began to take shape.
Harriet Gilmore was born in Mapleton to Mr. and Mrs. M.A. Gilmore in 1880. After graduating from Mapleton High School, she went on to attend the Mankato Normal School. She was a teacher before her marriage to Dr. Paul Barney in 1904. The couple made their permanent residence in Mankato. But Mrs. Barney was not one to sit home. She was active with the Mankato First Presbyterian Church, founded the Mankato Garden Club as well as a member of the Eastern Star, Mankato Music Club, Art History Club, and Daughters of the American Revolution.
As president of the Mankato Garden Club, Mrs. Barney proposed a way to honor those who had served from Blue Earth County. Soon, Mrs. Barney’s plan in partnership with the Mapleton American Legion and the Minnesota Department of Highways was set into action. Trees, as living memorials, would be planted along the new “Victory Highway” between Mankato and Mapleton. Those who wished to contribute could pay $2.50 for the purchase of one tree in honor of a serviceman or woman. In exchange, the veteran’s name would be included on a plaque that at one time hung at the Blue Earth County Courthouse.
The Minnesota Highway Department agreed to take care of planting and tending to the trees. Between 1948-1952 1,170 trees were planted along both sides of “Victory Highway” from Mankato to about 9 miles south. The trees included American Elms, Black Hills Spruce, Green Ash, Poplars, and Conifers. In 1955, the living memorial was extended south of nine-mile corner to Mapleton with the planting of additional trees. Sadly, Mrs. Barney passed away before the completion of the Memorial Park built closer to Mapleton.
Over the next forty years, some trees had to be replaced due to disease or damage. In the 1990s Mapleton businesswoman, Lorena Fron set out to rejuvenate “Victory Highway” and extend the veteran’s memorial to include wars post World War II. Over the next decade, she and others organized the community and Maple River High School students to plant 400 new trees.
In 2016, MnDOT announced the reconstruction of the 15-mile Victory Highway aka Victory Drive between Mankato and Mapleton. The road work was aimed at improving safety and traffic flow but also meant 600 trees would need to be removed due to their proximity to the highway and poor health. Road construction spanned 2017-2018; wrapping up in 2019 with new plantings of over 600 trees, 100 evergreens, 150 shrubs, and 3,000 tall grasses and wildflowers. Also, in 2019, new limestone memorials were installed at each end of Victory Drive; one memorial for each branch of the military: Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Forces, and Coast Guard.
Victory Drive Memorial is a lasting tribute to all generations of brave men and women from Blue Earth County who have served their country in the armed forces. Thank you for your service.